Monday, October 31, 2011

What it means to be a citizen

Man is by nature concerned solely with his and his family's wellbeing. That is his biological imperative.  Socially, however, man has evolved into being a member, a citizen, of a larger society. And so, from the most primitive communities to contemporary societies, that driving instinct has been reigned in for the greater good of the community. 

In primitive societies and in many Asian societies, a collective culture developed that enforced working for the good of the group largely through strong social pressure; the individual was of lesser importance. In the West, where the concept of individualism took root, societies have instead depended upon laws to control the relationship between man's individual liberties and rights and his part in the larger society.

There are thousands of laws that control the right of an individual to do what he might want to do.  Whether it's the criminal law, traffic laws, building codes and zoning laws, or product liability law, laws have been developed that balance the individual’s rights against the greater public good; they tell the individual what the limits are of his freedom to act.  Without such laws we would have anarchy.

As our society became more civilized and enlightened, the concept of man's pro-active responsibilities to the larger society developed.  Man not only has rights that are given by the laws of the community, he has concomitant shared responsibilities for the community that go beyond the responsibility not to harm others. This is the basis for the American social contract.

In the current political context, there is a huge uproar on the Right regarding three fundamental aspects of the relationship between government, individual rights, and the greater public good that came to define the American social contract in the 20th century.  The first is the regulation of business.  The second is progressive taxation.  The third is the government's responsibilities towards those less fortunate.

The primary interest of any business is self-interest ... that is its nature as much as it's man's nature.  As we saw during the industrial revolution and the early decades of the 20th century, if business is not regulated, it will show no concern for either its workers or the greater public good.  Indeed, it is because of man's unbridled greed that most of the laws and regulations we have on the books today exist.

It goes without saying that no man or business likes being regulated.  It hampers his freedom to do as he thinks is best and it often costs him money.   This is no different in concept from his desire to drive faster than the speed limit allows.  And so business tries to find a way around regulation, often with the collaboration of the very people hired to enforce regulations.

That is what happened with oil drilling in the Gulf, which resulted in the BP disaster.  That is what happened with the financial industry, which resulted in the 2008 recession and the current economic malaise of a large proportion of our citizens.

Most taxes, likes sales taxes, are regressive … the lower a person’s income, the larger the share of their income that goes to paying taxes.  (With regard to the sales tax, that’s because lower income people spend a larger share of their income on the purchase of necessities and other goods, accounting for the tax taking a larger share of their income.) 

As the United States developed into a more progressive society, it realized that regressive taxes posed an unfair burden on the poor.  A socially fair tax would work in the opposite way … the higher ones income, the greater the share of that income that would be paid in taxes because such people have much more discretionary income and therefore a higher tax would not pose any hardship.  And so when the income tax was instituted, that’s how it was designed … as a progressive tax.

In 1932, the income tax for the top bracket was 63% of income over $1,000,000.  In 1950, it was 91% of income over $400,000.  As recently as 1980, the rate was 70% of income over $212,000.  Today, the rate is 35% of income over $380,000. The rich are paying a smaller portion of their income as taxes to support the greater public good now than at any time since the income tax was instituted.

Over the course of the past 100 years, again as society has become more civilized and enlightened, government has taken a greater hand in both directly providing for those in need as well as ensuring in various ways that they have the opportunity to better their position in life. This was a fuller implementation of the role of government stated in the Declaration of Independence … “to secure” the right to life, liberty, and happiness. Programs that were once considered radical or socialist by Republicans, such as Social Security and Medicare, which they fought tooth and nail at the time, are now accepted by most as necessary programs ... not without their problems, but vital to the wellbeing of a large proportion of our citizens and thus the stability of our economy.

In all these areas, the current radical brand of Republican conservatives, egged on by the energy and anger of the Tea Party, have argued that the government’s role should be reduced or eliminated.  Business should not be regulated.  The wealthy should not pay more taxes.  Everyone should have to fend for themselves … if you don’t success, it’s your fault.

Each of these positions is against the balance that our nation has historically struck between private rights, the public good, and the role of government.  These positions violate an enlightened concept of the rights and responsibilities of a citizen.

The Tea Party wishes to take us back to an era where individualism ran rampant and success was limited to the few.  America’s strength in the 20th century evolved by broadening the base of prosperity among its citizens and creating a more vibrant, intelligent workforce through the intervention of government programs and regulation.

That is where we need to continue heading in the 21st century to ensure America’s continued strength.  The Tea Party and their Republican captives need to be recognized for what they are … a shill for big business and the rich.  They are not responsible citizens of this great republic.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why Tax the Rich When You Can Tax the Poor?

As reported in USA Today, states across the country are increasing existing tolls on roads/bridges/
tunnels as well as charging tolls for the first time on roads that have always been free.  A toll is a tax and one that falls disproportionately on the middle class and poor.   It is a very regressive tax.

I understand that states and localities are strapped for money and that they need to raise revenues somehow in order not to have even deeper cuts in services.  But to raise revenues in a very regressive manner … hitting lower income people harder than upper income … is socially unfair and contrary to progressive principles.

This is especially egregious when the tax is on something that is a necessity for many.  For people commuting for work within large metropolitan areas, public transportation is not generally a very realistic alternative.  It either just doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t take you where you need to go. 

For many people in the lower-middle income categories, a raise in tolls could mean that commuting to work is no longer financially reasonable.  If they have to quit their jobs that means higher unemployment with greater strain on local government services.  Regardless how you look at it, it’s bad government policy.  Other examples of bad taxes to raise would be sales taxes and gasoline taxes, both of which are regressive and impact the ability to acquire necessities.

And there are alternatives that are not regressive.  The one is obviously to raise income taxes on the wealthy.   It’s anathema to the Republicans, but it’s the right thing to do.  The tax rate for the richest Americans is lower than it has been since before the Depression.  Another option would be to place or raise a sales tax surcharge on luxury items.

Then there are alternatives that, while regressive, do not impact necessities … although granted that’s all in the eye of the beholder.  I’m referring to sin taxes … taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. While these definitely hit lower income people disproportionately, cigarettes and alcohol are not necessities and in quantity are actually bad for people. So if a state has a clear social policy of discouraging the use of cigarettes and alcohol, I could support such a tax increase.  But only then,

We live in a culture where the rich and big business have access to the people who hold the levers of power in government.  The middle class and poor have no such access.  As a result, the rich and big business are catered to; the rest are mostly given lip service.  It is unjust.  It is against the American social contract.  It is un-American.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Is It Class Warfare or Is It a Cry for Justice?

Over the past three decades this country has experienced rapid growth in income inequality.  While the incomes of those in the top 5% have increased exponentially, especially during the past decade, the inflation-adjusted income of production and non-supervisory workers has actually decreased.  The 2010 census found the number of Americans living in poverty to be higher than at any time in the past 51 years that records have been kept; the poverty rate … 1 in 7 Americans … was higher than it’s been since 1994.  The rich have indeed gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer.  The middle class has been eviscerated.

Yet in Congress the Republicans, who say they speak on behalf of the average American, instead fight any efforts to regulate the financial industry excesses that brought about the recent/current recession, resist any tax increases on wealthy Americans (although current tax rates are lower than at any time since before the Depression), and in general continue to support government subsidization of industry while seeking savage budget cuts in programs that support middle income Americans and the poor.  All in the name of reigning in the deficit.

This is the context in which Mitt Romney and other Republicans are crying “class warfare” at the protests taking place against the financial industry and at Obama’s call for the rich to pay a minimum tax at least equal to the taxes paid by middle income Americans.

Call it mendacity; call it hypocritical.  But beyond deceit, as Rick Perry so aptly stated when criticizing his fellow Republicans for their stand on immigration, these people have no heart.  Not only have they no heart, they have forgotten the American social contract which has benefited them greatly and under which they have an obligation to support the government’s efforts to help those less fortunate.

It is not class warfare to ask that the rich pay their fair share to support the government.  It is not class warfare to ask that industry be regulated so that the public good is protected.  These demands are a cry for social justice.  They are consistent with the balance that our nation has historically struck between private right, the public good, and government. 

The Republicans seek to fundamentally alter that balance.  They are making war on the American social contract and on the middle class, the poor, and the environment.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pastors want to have their cake and eat it too

The New York Times has reported that there is a movement afoot by evangelical and other pastors to flout the IRS rule that prohibits churches, as tax-exempt organizations, from campaigning in elections.  They are going so far as to send the IRS tapes of their sermons.  

Clearly they wish the IRS to take action so that they can then sue the IRS.   As the Rev. James Garlow was reported in The New York Times as saying, “There should be no government intrusion in the pulpit.  The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion means pastors have full authority to say what they want to say.”

Of course … and they do have the right to say what they want to say.   There’s only one problem.  They have sought to be exempt from taxes by filing with the IRS as 501c(3) non-profit organizations.  One of the many rules for being entitled to this status and its exemption from taxes is that organizations cannot speak out for or against a candidate in an election … in effect, no campaigning.

It is important to note that the IRS provision does not prohibit all political speech.  Churches can be involved in educating their members on the issues in a non-partisan manner and individual members, even pastors, can speak out directly for or against a candidate if they do not do so using the church’s financial resources, facilities, or personnel and make clear they are speaking on their own behalf, not the church’s.

This rule applies to all 501c(3) organizations … not just churches.  It has nothing to do with freedom of religion.  If pastors want to be free to campaign from the pulpit and get their church involved in campaigns, then they just have to withdraw their churches from 501c(3) status.  The choice is theirs.